One year after Mumbai attacks, a push to move on
On the anniversary of the Mumbai attacks, some commemorate, others capitalize.
Mumbai, India — Inside the bustling marble lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in downtown Mumbai (Bombay), a bookstore sells a collection of reprinted newspaper articles and photos from the terrorist attacks here one year ago. One page features the iconic Taj under siege, smoke billowing from floors that remain charred and windowless today.
Despite such pervasive reminders of the Nov. 26, 2008, attacks, however, managers at the Taj and other downtown businesses say operations are back to normal. Despite the candlelight vigils and memorial services held across the country for the anniversary of the attacks, they say they have no desire to commemorate it.
"We've moved on," says Nikhila Phat, public relations manager of the Taj. "Everybody is happy and smiling. We're a hotel and we're open for business."
As Ms. Phat walks through the palace, several baby showers and business conferences occupy the meeting centers. Sunbathers lounge beside the swimming pool where, last year, guests hid behind shrubs as gunmen sprayed the area with bullets.
'Not a day we're trying to remember'
During the 60-hour siege of India's financial capital, terrorists killed at least 164 people, including 31 here at the Taj and 35 at the Oberoi Trident. Gunmen also targeted Mumbai's main train station, a restaurant, and a Jewish center. Bombs destroyed whole sections of both hotels.
Only one of the 10 gunmen from the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which seeks to liberate the disputed Kashmir region from India, survived the attack. Ajmal Amir Kasab's trial is ongoing in Mumbai. He could face the death penalty.
Though Indian anger at Pakistan was potent and palpable following the attacks – small crowds moved through Mumbai's streets chanting anti-Pakistan slogans – the attacks also prompted India to look inward and ask if it had missed several warning signs. It was the sixth major terror attack in the country between May and November 2008.
On Wednesday night members of a citizens' group rallied outside the Taj urging more police reform.
Phat would have preferred the anniversary to pass quietly. "It's not a day we're trying to remember," she says. "It's a day we're trying to forget."
In the Taj's lobby, a small monument lists those killed at the hotel, and a small plaque inconspicuously hung in the Oberoi Trident's lobby also bears the names of staff killed.
Both hotels partially reopened on Dec. 21, but their marred exteriors bear witness to last year's events. The Taj's gothic facade still shows three charred and gutted sections, and display windows of luxury retailers on the ground floor remain boarded shut.
Inside the original palace section of the Taj, opened in 1903, all rooms and several conference areas are under renovation, as are several restaurants. Guests can stay only in the 268-room adjacent tower, built in 1973.
An entire 327-room section at the Oberoi also remains closed. Daily, construction workers on scaffolding restore the exterior and haul out buckets of rubble from the demolished interior. Both are expected to reopen fully sometime in 2010.
Nevertheless, management at the hotels insists everything is back to normal. "We've turned the page," says Mrudu Nair, assistant manager at Trident's front office. "A busy, packed season is forecast."
Both the Taj and Trident report occupancy rates level with a year ago. They attribute that in part to support of longtime guests and foreign dignitaries who visited after the attacks in a show of solidarity. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a guest at the Taj last July, and former President George W. Bush stayed and met with staff earlier this month.
Surrounding businesses also appear resurgent. Around the block from the Taj, at the Leopold Cafe, where gunmen shot and killed at least 10 people, waiters are once again anxious for customers to finish their meals and open up seats for the next round of customers. A large painting on the wall bears the Times of India newspaper headline: "War on Mumbai, 26/11."
Local entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the attack. For about $40, multiple tour agencies offer a "terror tour" of the route attackers took last year.
"Many locals come here to take photos of the terrorist attack spots," says B. Sherfudin Rassoul, a tour guide along the waterfront road separating the Taj and the Gateway of India.
Tourists' cameras also capture the armored vehicles and police permanently stationed around the Taj and the Oberoi Trident. A chain-link barricade surrounds both hotels, and armed security guards stand beside bellhops at the buildings' main entrances.
"It shouldn't have to be this way," says Jamshed Mody, looking at the heavy security while visiting the Oberoi Trident earlier this month for a professional conference. A therapist, Mr. Mody has an office one block from the Taj. He says visiting either hotel still moves him.
"It was an emotional experience," he says. "It's not going to go away."